God Gave Foreign Languages to Some Missionaries
In 1985 I had the privilege of meeting a remarkable young missionary couple named James and Jaime Thomas. Soon after they were married some years ago they went to Argentina under Maranatha Ministries. Neither James nor Jaime had learned any Spanish while growing up in Kentucky. James had enrolled in a Spanish course in High school, but he was doing so poorly that he dropped it so as not to lower his grade point average.
When they arrived in Cordoba, Argentina, they began planting a church near the university campus by using interpreters. God blessed the ministry, and a small church was soon underway. At one point James invited a Puerto Rican Pentecostal evangelist, Ben Soto, to speak in a Sunday evening service. About 150 people were present. Soto, a dynamic speaker, was preaching fervently in Spanish when all of a sudden he stopped. The silence startled the congregation. They thought something had happened to the preacher.
But Soto was all right. In a few moments he said, in English, “James and Jaime, God has just told me that he is going to give you the gift of Spanish.” He invited them to come up front, laid on his hands and blessed what God was doing. Then he said, “James, you take over,” and he sat down. James was stunned and confused. He hadnt felt anything special during Ben Sotos prayer. So he instinctively called for his interpreter. But Soto insisted that he do it on his own in Spanish.
James reluctantly picked up the list of announcements he had written out in English, and began slowly, “En...esta...semana...varnos...a...” and proceeded to break into fluent Spanish, spoken with an Argentine accent. From that moment he has spoken Spanish like a native and written it with correct grammar, spelling and even accent marks. Not only that, but when God more recently called them to Guatemala, James found himself speaking immediately with a Guatemalan accent. He demonstrated to me (I am fluent in Spanish) how he could also speak the dialects of Honduras, Venezuela and Mexico. That would be equivalent to me switching my English accent at will from California to Kentucky to New England to Australia to Ireland.
Meanwhile, before Ben Soto came, Jaime had learned even less Spanish than her husband. She told me that she was so terrified when facing someone with whom she could not communicate that she would not even answer a knock at the door of her house. But after Sotos prayer, some women began to ask her questions in Spanish and she found herself answering them comfortably and fluently. For some reason, God did not give her a native accent, but she speaks well, although with an American accent.
I am in correspondence with Stella Bosworth, who has been a missionary to Africa for over 30 years. Her mother, Ethel Raath, a South African, knew a few words of pigeon Zulu, but that was all. In 1935 she and her husband were assigned to do government work in Transkei, a Zulu area, and when they arrived some Zulu Christians asked them to begin services for them. Mrs. Raath felt that God was calling her to minister and pray in Zulu, so she decided to ask Him for the language. She gathered the Zulu Christians, knelt down, placed the Zulu Bible on her head, and they prayed for her to speak Zulu. From the time she got up from her knees she could speak, read and write Zulu fluently. She became her husbands chief interpreter. Like James Thomas, God gave her a perfect Zulu accent so that they call her “the white Zulu.”
I am also in correspondence with Norman Bonner, a retired Wesleyan missionary to Haiti, and later among the Zulus as well. While in Haiti as a new missionary he had been studying French, intentionally postponing the study of Creole. But, finding himself in a situation one day when he felt he needed to preach in Creole, he specifically asked God for the language. From that time on he could preach fluently in Creole and interpret for visiting evangelists. One evangelist said, “I would give ten thousand dollars for your knowledge of Creole.”
Jon and Cher Cadd, who fly with Mission Aviation Fellowship in Zimbabwe, tell of how a Zimbabwean interpreter received the Vidoma language. In his book Bruchko, Bruce Olson describes how, in Colombia, Motilone Indian evangelists were given the Yuko language, a dialect quite different from their native tongue. Whether those involved in these two cases continued to speak the new language I do not know.
Stories like this highlight Gods power, but they must not lead us to presumption. God sometimes works this way, but I suppose that both now and in the future some 99.9 percent of new missionaries will still have to learn languages like my wife and I learned Spanishthe old-fashioned way. Nevertheless, lets be open to Gods surprises and accept them with gratitude.